Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Moral Math

In yesterday's explanation for why I'm weary of corporate charity and how we can improve it, I hinted at something that has bothered me for a while. When people do one good thing, they often let themselves off the hook for other good things. Not until I came across this article did I have the vocabulary to articulate what I meant:
The academic name for such quizzical behavior is moral licensing. It seems that we have a good/bad balance sheet in our heads that we're probably not even aware of. For many people, doing good makes it easier -- and often more likely -- to do bad. It works in reverse, too: Do bad, then do good.
We see everyday when people pull up to their organic food store in a Hummer or when we feel better about leaving energy efficient light bulbs on longer. But it also has less innocent repercussions like:
a study showing that voters given an opportunity to endorse Barack Obama for president were more likely to later favor white people for job openings.
In another experiment shoppers were given the option to shop at either:
online stores that carry mainly green products or mainly conventional products. Then they played a game that allowed them to cheat to make more money. The shoppers from the green store were more dishonest than those at the conventional store, which brought them higher earnings in the game.
This is connected to my skeptical attitude toward charitable giving in general. It seems the best way to avoid this mental trap is either to account for everything you do, so you can accurately weigh the costs and benefits, or simply make your kind acts second nature so they stop being accounted.


  1. Agreed, though of course in making this argument you have to avoid falling into the even worse trap--of using your skepticism as a way to let yourself off the hook for ALL good things.

    Your last paragraph explains why moral education is so important: it's never going to be possible to "account for EVERYTHING you do," so the only good way to avoid the trap is to develop the habit of kindness.

  2. Amike9:47 AM

    Wait a...hey!!


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